Can sunlight and vitamin D help to preserve physical function and independence as we age?

As we age, we are generally more likely to succumb to illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. On top of this, though, we run the risk of becoming infirm. For some this culminates in disability and loss of independence. What can be done, though, to protect against such physical deterioration?

One approach would be to engage in exercise, and specifically ‘resistance’ exercise that can help strengthen muscles. Muscles can shrink and weaken as we age, and doing some regular resistance exercise can help to mitigate this, and so help preserve functionality.

However, it is known that vitamin D plays an important part in muscle structure and function. The risk as we age is that should we become infirm, we’re less likely to venture outdoors. This puts at at risk of vitamin D deficiency, which may compound any physical frailty that is present. This, theoretically at least, can lead us into a bit of a downward spiral which has pretty depressing implications in terms of our health, quality of life and independence.

I was interested to read about some research yesterday which attempted to look at the relationship between vitaimin D levels and functionality in an elderly population. You can read about this research (as yet, unpublished) here.

What this research found is that in the population studied (men and women with an average age of 75), higher levels of vitamin D were associated with improved physical function. Now, it is possible that this association is due to the fact that more physically able individuals are more likely to, say, go out more and get more sun exposure (and hence have higher levels of vitamin D). However, remember, we do know that vitamin D is important for muscle health and strength, as well as other markers of functionality including balance. The likelihood, therefore, is that higher vitamin D levels can genuinely leading to improved function.

What reminded me of this research was a conversation I overheard yesterday morning while waiting to board a plane. An elderly lady was telling a stranger in the queue how she had got to the airport a little earlier than normal because she normally flew out of a different airport and wanted to give herself a bit more time in an unfamiliar environment. Clearly, this is a lady who does a lot of travel. Interesting, she was travelling alone. Interesting, because she mentioned to her new-found friend that she would be 90 (yes, ninety) on her next birthday.

The reason for me getting a flight yesterday as I wan en route to give a presentation at a business conference regarding how to optimise energy and wellbeing, including in old age. I spent quite a lot of time on the benefits of sunlight and vitamin D in this respect to be sure.

9 Responses to Can sunlight and vitamin D help to preserve physical function and independence as we age?

  1. Bill 29 April 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    You are absolutely right to maintain and espouse your positive views towards the benefits of vitamin D.

    I believe that optimum levels should be maintained by regular monitoring in all the population, throughout our lives.
    This would be a minor cost compared with the huge and unsustainable burden of treating degenerative illness, including muscle/strength loss, especially past middle age.

    As a 55 year old, supplementing for 2 years now, my balance has definitely improved, my immune system is stronger with no colds through 2 winters, and health and well being markedly better.
    Combined with resistance traing and lots of vigorous hill walking, I am determined to improve health and overall strength. I wish I knew what I know now, much earlier in my life.

    I’m not waiting 20 years for the BMA to recommend optimum vitamin D levels, if they ever will anyway.
    If the general health of the population was 20-50% improved by vitamin D, then we would need less medical services and less drugs and pharmaceuticals.
    Turkeys voting for christmas comes to mind.

    Keep on blogging Dr. John. You are making a difference and raising awareness, and it’s much appreciated.

  2. Alison 30 April 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    I would be interested to know how much Vitamin D one should take and in what format, if one has not actually been diagnosed as being deficient.

    Thanks.

  3. Victoria 30 April 2010 at 11:40 pm #

    Like Alison, I would like to know how much Vitamin D you recommend taking; I found it quite confusing trying to work out which product to choose from when I started looking online.

    Yes, like Bill too, I always find something of interest and value in your newsletters.

    All the best

  4. Michael 1 May 2010 at 1:39 am #

    I’m with Alison.Please tell us Dr.Briffa how we can raise our levels of vitamin D.Cod liver oil capsules?

  5. Margaret Wilde 1 May 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    Like Bill, I have undoubtedly benefited from supplementing with Vitamin D3 for over a year now: stronger muscles, better balance, and most particularly welcome to me, it is no longer such a struggle for me to rise from a low chair.

    More power to your blog, Dr Briiffa!

  6. Gabriella 1 May 2010 at 9:52 pm #

    Dear Alison, Victoria and Bill -
    Dr. Briffa has written extensively about Vit. D and its benefits. If you want to learn more on the subject, click on “Archives”, scroll down and you will find all sorts of posts dealing with this subject and other very interesting subjects as well.
    Happy reading! Ciao, Gabriella

  7. Paul 11 May 2010 at 10:51 pm #

    There are some good sources of information @

    http://www.grassrootshealth.org/daction/epidemic.php

    From there site

    “A Scientists’ Call to Action has been issued to alert the public to the importance to have vitamin D serum levels between 40 and 60 nanograms/milliliter to prevent these diseases. Implementing this level is safe and inexpensive.”

    They offer a testing service which I’ve used. My levels went up form 31-65ng/mL in 6 months. I take about 5000iu per day of D3. But will decrease this during the summer.

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